Over the last two decades, the public has grown accustomed to having no idea who the other person involved in a Serena Williams match is.
Frequently, of course, there’s been little value in learning. That’s because Williams – possibly the greatest tennis player of all time and certainly the most recognisable – tends to make anybody who dares cross her path look forgettable within an hour, before she moves on either another victim or, on 22 occasions, a Grand Slam title.
So when, on Thursday, the 35-year-old announced her engagement to a little-known American tech entrepreneur named Alexis Ohanian, many people’s reaction would have been familiar: Who?
If you think it sounds as though Serena Williams is marrying another Mark Zuckerberg, think again. Aside from the obvious discrepancies – Ohanian is 6ft 5ins, charismatic, handsome and vaguely stylish – he is a comparative pauper. With a net worth estimated at around $4.5m, Ohanian comes nowhere close to the big league of baby-faced US ‘techpreneurs’.
In fact, any talk of gold digging on Williams’ part is laughable, and entirely the wrong way round. Through prize money, endorsements, royalties, a fashion line and countless other ventures, the world no.2 has a net wealth of $150m, making her the world’s highest-paid female athlete and 33 times richer than her new fiancé.
Fortunately, the couple seem more than happy to spend time in each other’s work places. Throughout the last 18 months, Ohanian has used Instagram to post various photographs from Williams’ tennis tournaments around the world, including uploading a snap of her, mid-serve, with the attending caption “Looks like I just became a tennis fan”. Last year, perhaps in a sign that things had become serious, he even invited his mother to watch live on Centre Court as his “Queen” (as he has frequently called Williams) won her seventh title.
In turn, Williams – known as much for her dry sense of humour as fiery temper – has taken to Reddit. Or she did this week, at least. To reveal her happy news to the world, Williams created a new ‘subreddit’ entitled “I said yes” and posted a poem. “At the same table we first met by chance… Down on one knee/ He said 4 words/And/ I said yes,” read the verse. Ohanian responded with a computerised drawing of the proposal, showing him on one knee as Williams, in tennis whites, leaps for joy.
It’s a most modern way of doing things, and a most modern fairytale. The queen of sport and the mayor of the internet, together at last. For perhaps the first time, Serena Williams is in a match she won’t hope to swiftly end.
As for Ohanian, what do his famously unrestrained acolytes across the world wide web think of their leader’s announcement?
Shortly after the engagement went public, an anonymous user edited his Wikipedia biography. “Ohanian is engaged to the tennis great Serena Williams,” began the newest line on his profile, now sadly deleted. “In other words, Ohanian is now the luckiest nerd of us all.”
If one thing has been proven by Williams off the court over the years, she certainly doesn’t have ‘a type’. In addition to Drake, Williams’ romances, rumoured or otherwise, have included the Hollywood film director Brett Ratner; her previous tennis coach, Patrick Mouratoglou; a professional basketball player; an actor; and Bulgarian tennis hunk Grigor Dimitrov – who went on to have a two year relationship with her once bitter rival, Maria Sharapova, causing Williams to say he has a “black heart”.
And now Alexis Ohanian: a quiet, smiling 33-year-old best known as the co-founder of Reddit, a social news website he began with a roommate from his time at the University of Virginia in 2005. Today the site boasts half a billion visitors every month, making him one of the most influential men in Silicon Valley.
According to those in the know, Williams and Ohanian have been dating for over a year, having met “at a lunch” by chance in Rome last autumn, shortly after she ended a brief dalliance with the Canadian rapper Drake (who is now seeing Jennifer Lopez, having split with Rihanna this summer, which makes him a sort of male Taylor Swift – only he gets away with it). This week, Ohanian proposed at the very same table, during a surprise trip to Italy.
Launching Reddit with friend Steve Huffman, it was a success, so much so that they sold it just a year later – long before it became one of the internet’s most-visited sites – for just $20m to the parent company of publishing behemoth Condé Nast. Ohanian stayed on as a Director, before leaving for a few years to launch a few preposterously-named yet profitable start-ups, such as travel search engine Hipmunk and social enterprise Breadpig, as well as writing a best-selling book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.
Ohanian returned to Reddit 2014 as Chairman, helping to steer the site to the forefront of the online debate surrounding privacy and free speech, a crusade so successful headline writers declared him ‘Mayor of the Internet’. Reddit’s transformation even provoked President Obama to post his thanks: “Wish I could upvote every one of you for helping keep the internet open and free,” he wrote.
If you haven’t heard of Reddit, which is entirely forgivable, imagine a giant church coffee morning with no agenda whatsoever, nobody in charge and a general suspicion somebody’s spiked the tea. Registered users can ‘upvote’ or ‘downvote’ content, which could include anything from a news story to a photograph, as well as posting their own, in order to create an aggregated list of must-read discussion points. Things tend to get very lively, and conduct hasn’t always been clean, but the site, which calls itself “The front page of the internet”, is in many ways a far healthier place for debate than Twitter or Facebook.
The idea came to Ohanian during a semester studying in London, as part of his degrees in commerce and history, in early 2003. With nothing to do on Sundays, he’d visit Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and listen to rants all day.
“Some of them were crazy. Some were very earnest. Crowds would form and people would debate. It was a transformative experience for me,” he told The Guardian. “When you see people standing old-school on a box – it was a very clear indication to me of what could happen if you could just distribute that a little better. And make it accessible to anyone with an internet connection.”
Famously, Williams and her older sister, Venus, grew up on the often troubled streets of Compton in Los Angeles, while Ohanian was born and raised an only child in New York by his father, Chris, whose family were refugees from Armenia, and his German-born mother, Anke.
Clearly the announcement of the forthcoming nuptials is a big moment for Armenia. In a tweet yesterday, Ohanian said fans from the tiny Caucasus nation are now “debating when they can claim Serena as Armenian”, while the news ought to see him solidify his position as the fourth most famous Armenian-American on the planet – behind the three Kardashian sisters, of course.
When he was young, Ohanian’s parents were “very, very supportive” of their son, he once said. “I wanted to do some crazy sh*t. And they were like, ‘go for it.’”
*Courtesy The Telegraph